IOWA CITY — Brandon Smith and a couple of receivers vying for the nickname of “Sweet Feet’’ are working to become the answer to one of the Iowa football team’s biggest questions.
Who is going to fill the void in the passing game created by the loss of all-American tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant and slot receiver Nick Easley?
That trio wrapped their arms around 140 of the 242 passes Iowa completed last season and the Hawkeyes are spending plenty of time this spring working to develop connections to help Nate Stanley continue to move the offense forward.
“The tight ends got a lot of hype that they deserved,’’ Smith said. “People ask how can we replace that? We lost two great guys at tight end, lost a good receiver in Easley, but we’ve still got good guys around here. It’s time to get the ball to the receivers more. We’re ready for it now.’’
The inexperience Iowa had at the receiver position a year ago tilted the passing game in favor of a pair of tight ends with exceptional hands, providing Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette with time to settle into expanded roles as sophomores.
They combined to catch 51 passes during the Hawkeyes’ 9-4 season, gaining experience that Smith believes has them ready to take on even more of the workload.
“We’ve been around for a couple of years now, we understand the offense and our positions,’’ Smith said. “That’s good experience that we’ve learned from and can work for us now. And, we don’t have to do it alone.’’
The emergence of two redshirt freshmen during spring practices is growing the list of possibilities.
Nico Ragaini, a 6-foot, 192-pound Connecticut native who is participating in his second set of spring practices at Iowa after enrolling in January, 2018, and Tyrone Tracy Jr., a 5-11, 200-pound Indiana native, each caught one pass for Iowa last fall before redshirting.
“Those two guys are getting better every day. They’re picking it up quick, making plays, doing a lot of good things for us,’’ Smith said. “They’re going to help us big time.’’
Things have gone so well that Tracy gave himself the nickname “Sweet Feet’’ a few days ago.
Smith didn’t let it stick.
“You don’t get to pick your own nickname,’’ he said. “It doesn’t work that way. Besides, Nico is the one. He’s ‘Sweet Feet’ and he’s earned that.’’
That’s one debate Iowa receivers coach Kelton Copeland is staying out of entirely, but he agrees with Smith’s assessment that Ragaini and Tracy are positioning themselves to potentially be among Stanley’s top targets.
He said both have made big strides this spring, saying they both have a natural feel for the position and have displayed a willingness to put in the work needed to improve.
“Tracy, he’s phenomenal,’’ Copeland said. “You see things that are magnetic. Every time he is around the ball, he has the ability to make plays.’’
He sees a lot of the same in Ragaini.
“He’s got quick feet, the ability to create space and get open,’’ Copeland said. “Nico, he just plays fast.’’
Both are working their way into Iowa’s plans for the fall.
“They are both physically gifted players, but it’s more than that,’’ Copeland said. “They’ve become leaders quickly in the way they go about things, the way they carry themselves and in how they work.’’
Copeland said Smith continues to work to gain consistency and is accomplishing that this spring, an area where Smith-Marsette has toiled at times during the first half of spring drills.
A third redshirt freshman, Calvin Lockett, is making progress but is behind after missing significant camp and practice time last fall because of an injury.
Compared to when he arrived two years ago and Iowa had two receivers participating in spring practices, Copeland finds himself in a good position with plenty of bodies and even more potential.
“We’re in a good place,’’ he said.
That includes being positioned to fill a greater role in the Hawkeye offense.
“We’re ready to help fill the void and make the most of the opportunities that are in front of us,’’ Copeland said.
“There’s an opportunity out there to show what we can do,’’ Smith said. “That’s what all our receivers want. That's what we're working toward.’’